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Updated: October 30, 2009 20:44 IST

Maine puts squeeze on low-alcohol British lemonade

AP
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Two bottles of Fentimans Victorian lemonade are seen, Croydon, south London, on Thursday. The century-old British lemonade has run into trouble in the U.S. because a high school student complained that the company's Victorian-style drink contains alcohol. The complaint prompted high school officials in Maine to contact the police, who are seeking a legal opinion from the Maine attorney general about whether the lemonade can be sold to minors. Photo: AP.
Two bottles of Fentimans Victorian lemonade are seen, Croydon, south London, on Thursday. The century-old British lemonade has run into trouble in the U.S. because a high school student complained that the company's Victorian-style drink contains alcohol. The complaint prompted high school officials in Maine to contact the police, who are seeking a legal opinion from the Maine attorney general about whether the lemonade can be sold to minors. Photo: AP.

Call it a culture clash, trans-Atlantic style.

The Brits think the Americans are puritanical and somewhat batty. The Americans find the Brits morally lax and too willing to bend the rules.

It all started at a high school in Maine when a student consumed half a bottle of Fentimans Victorian Lemonade, then looked at the label and discovered it contained small amounts of alcohol, listed as less than 0.5 percent. By contrast, a typical American beer usually contains about 5 percent alcohol.

Not wanting to get in trouble, he showed it to school administrators, who called police. Police referred the matter to state officials to determine whether the zesty beverage could be sold to minors. Anti-alcohol groups got involved, sending out warnings about the potential perils of the highbrow brew.

On Thursday, the Maine attorney general’s office said it has determined that, in Maine, at least, people have to be 21 to buy the product.

“Fentimans Lemonade cannot be sold to minors,” said spokeswoman Kate Simmons.

The president of the U.S. division of Fentimans, Greg Warwick, said the company’s full line of beverages is deemed OK by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Maine is the only place where anybody has raised a stink, Mr. Warwick said.

“This is a very historical process that’s been going on since 1905,” Mr. Warwick said.

In England, company officials said the brouhaha in Maine is much ado about nothing.

“We see it as slightly absurd,” said Tiffany McKirdy, operations director at Fentimans, a specialty brewer in northern England. “It looks to us like utter hysteria, the fact that the principal contacted the police and the substance abuse officials got involved.

“We do occasionally get inquiries about the alcohol content, and we are concerned about underage drinking, but it is legally classified as a soft drink.”

A person would need to drink about 28 bottles of the lemonade to consume the amount of alcohol found in a typical pint of beer, Ms. McKirdy said.

The concerns raised in Maine reflect the prudishness of the devout men and women who left England in search of the new world, said Fentimans managing director Eldon Robson.

“Maine is, of course, where our puritanical forefathers went because Britain was not strict enough, and it has been said that Puritans are people who are always worried that someone, somewhere, might be having fun,” he said, adding that he found the whole flap amusing.

It is not a laughing matter in Houlton, Maine, where Police Chief Butch Asselin asked the state’s liquor licensing authorities to determine whether the lemonade could legally be sold to minors.

“It wasn’t so much that we were trying to give Fentimans a black eye,” he said. “We just want to make parents aware it contains alcohol. I’ve never had it; it’s probably very good, but their Web site says it can be used for mixed drinks.”

He pointed out that non-alcoholic beers with similar residual alcohol content cannot be dispensed to minors under Maine law.

The police chief is also concerned because a Google search of Victorian lemonade turned up recipes calling for it to be made with gin. He fears young people will read those recipes and add gin to their Fentimans.

Clare Desrosiers of the Aroostook Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition said that given the lemonade’s alcohol content and packaging, it shouldn’t be marketed to children any more than candy cigarettes should.

“If a product encourages children to drink alcohol, then it shouldn’t be sold,” she said.

All this has a bright side for Fentimans. The controversy has raised its profile in the U.S., leading to a significant number of inquiries from wholesalers and consumers looking to buy its lemonade and other products. The company started exporting to the U.S. only four years ago, and could use a boost in name recognition.

“This furore has resulted in an amazing amount of consumer requests,” Mr. McKirdy said. “People are aware of the product. I think we have to look on this in a positive light.”

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